Zao / MiyagiYour own Personal Wellness Retreat in Zao: Private hot-spring cabins, Japanese pork on the BBQ, and crafting with local nature

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Zao-machi is a rural town located in the foothills of Mount Zao, in southwest Miyagi Prefecture. The area is named after Zao Gongen, a deity worshipped here long ago. In ancient times, worshippers would climb the peaks of Mount Zao to perform ascetic rituals, then descend and recuperate in the natural hot springs dotting the foothills of the mountain.

Over the centuries, Zao has transformed from a center of ascetic spiritual practice to one of outdoor leisure and agricultural production. Modern Zao is a haven for anyone who loves fresh, flavorful food and scenic nature. Though spirituality no longer figures in the area’s culture as prominently as it once did, the old pilgrimage trails have been reincarnated as hiking trails, and Zao still affords the peaceful respite and healing hot springs so appreciated by the religious pilgrims of yore.

Make yourself at home in a private lodge with a hot-spring bath

A vacation rental in the Sansuien neighborhood.

Part of the charm of the Zao countryside is its spacious accommodations. Vacation homes are available for short- and long-term stays. The Sansuien neighborhood has twenty-three vacation rentals, set among private residences. Staying at one of these properties, you’ll be living like a local, with a freestanding, fully furnished house at your disposal. Sansuien also has rental bicycles for guests, a fun and environmentally friendly way to explore the area.

A leisurely ride on a rental cycle from Sansuien.

At Sansuien, you can come and go as you please without worrying about curfew or noise restrictions. And you can cook whatever you want in the full-size kitchen—a fantastic way to take advantage of the farm-fresh ingredients you can pick up in Zao. The rentals come in a variety of styles, from classic log cabins to chic and modern houses. All are largely Western-style and come equipped with the amenities of a regular house, like television and Wi-Fi, while at the same time providing the quaint comforts of a countryside lodge: cozy beds, patios, wood-burning fireplaces, and more. Some of the homes also have a bit of Japanese flair in the form of a washitsu, a traditional room with a tatami-mat floor.

A relaxing evening in the living room of a Sansuien vacation rental.
A washitsu room in a Sansuien vacation rental.

A most amazing feature of many Sansuien vacation rentals is that onsen water is pumped directly into the bathroom. That means you can enjoy the unparalleled experience of soaking in a natural hot spring right in the privacy of your “own home”—no need to get nude in a public dressing room or share a bath with strangers. Some have regular bathtubs with a hot-water tap that delivers the onsen water; others provide more atmosphere with cedar or stone baths large enough for two people.

A private cedar hot-spring bath in a Sansuien vacation rental.

Savor local ingredients with a BBQ at Wild Zao Village

A spread of healthy Japan X pork and local fruit and vegetables at Wild Zao Village.

Zao is an agriculturally rich area where an abundance of fruits and vegetables are cultivated, but it is also known for its dairy, like cheese from Zao Dairy, and meat, like Japan X pork. Japan X pigs are raised on only four farms in the entire world, two of which are located in the Zao area. The lean meat is tender and mild, which allows the flavor and richness of the fat to take the spotlight.

The BBQ hut at Wild Zao Village.

With top-quality meat like Japan X pork being produced locally, open-air grilling is naturally a popular attraction in Zao. Japanese BBQ packages offered by outfits like Wild Zao Village are geared toward empty-handed visitors. They feature platters piled high with assorted cuts of Japan X pork and include free use of the village’s sturdy grills, tools, and charcoal.

The chokubai farmers’ market at Wild Zao Village.

Those who want some fresh produce can pick up whatever they like at the on-site chokubai (direct sales) farmers’ market, which sells fruits and vegetables harvested just that morning. Unlike some kinds of farmers’ markets that are quite pricey, Japanese chokubai are very affordable, with better prices than most supermarkets charge. The selection varies by season. Vegetables range from those common in the West, like eggplant and butternut squash, to exotic satoimo tubers and shishito peppers. As for fruit, staples like grapes and apples are sold alongside the more unusual, like pawpaw and Asian pears. The produce is so fresh that it grills up juicy and tender even without added oil. If you’re in Zao during fig season, be sure to throw some of those on the grill too—over a charcoal flame, they caramelize beautifully, making for a fantastic dessert.

Japan X pork and Zao produce—hot off the grill.

In addition to the grilling facilities and chokubai farmers’ market, Wild Zao Village features a restaurant and a natural hot-spring footbath. The restaurant, called Wakuwaku Farm, serves fresh, fast fare like soup curry and pizza, made with local ingredients. The footbath is free to use and feels especially good after hiking or standing a while tending the grill.

The natural hot-spring footbath at Wild Zao Village.

Dye a silk scarf the traditional way using local plants

Oizumi-san helping a workshop participant soak silk in natural dye.

The Zao countryside is a treasure trove of traditional craft, with workshops inviting visitors to participate in crafting that mimics real artisan work. One craft that makes wonderful use of the wild Zao flora is kusakizome, the dyeing of fabric using wild plants as the source of pigment. Kusakizome experiences are offered by Oizumi-san, a Miyagi native who learned the trade as an apprentice to an elderly local woman. Her workshop is in Higurashi-no-Kan, an Edo-period farmhouse located in the Sansuien neighborhood.

Kusagi, a wild plant native to Zao.

Oizumi-san adheres to traditional methods, the very same ones historically used to dye kimono and the acclaimed Sendai Hira silk. Glance around her dyeworks, and you’ll see an apothecary-like repository of branches, leaves, husks, and berries, as well as bubbling vats in which these materials are being boiled to extract their pigment. Mid-autumn presents the rare opportunity to dye with kusagi, a shrub that is native to Zao and has striking magenta blossoms and bright-blue fruit. Cloth dyed with kusagi turns a pastel cyan, which is a dreamy color otherwise difficult to achieve with plant-based dyes. Parts of other plants that Oizumi-san makes use of in autumn are peach-tree leaves, which yield an earthy chartreuse, and chestnut husks, which yield a dark taupe.

Oizumi-san inspecting a workshop participant’s handiwork.

At Oizumi-san’s workshop, visitors can try dyeing a lightweight silk scarf or kerchief. The silk is from Gunma Prefecture and is the same kind used in fine kimono, though woven less tightly to be softer and more forgiving for the novice dyer. The end result looks professional and attractive, something you’d actually want to wear when going out. With the silk being washable and the dye colorfast, you can really do that!

The finished product: a silk scarf dyed with kusagi.

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Getting to Zao:

Zao is close enough to visit on a day trip from Tokyo or Sendai, but it’s much more relaxing and enjoyable to stay a night or two. You can get to Sendai Station from Tokyo Station in just under two hours on the Tohoku Shinkansen. From Sendai, Zao is about an hour away by bus or rental car. Once you are there you can simply relax in the great outdoors, or explore the tourist attractions of the area, like Okama Crater and Zao Fox Village. Outdoor enthusiasts may want to consider an even longer stay in the Zao area. In winter, it makes a great base for skiing and snowboarding, with top spots like Sumikawa Snow Park and Shiroishi Ski Resort just a short drive away. In warmer seasons, the area is perfect for a variety of outdoor activities, from hiking and cycling to horseback riding and canyoning. No matter the time of year, a stay in Zao lets you enjoy the charms of the Japanese countryside, with comfortable accommodations that will have you feeling right at home.

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change. Unless stated otherwise, prices do not include tax.
*Unauthorized reproduction of material in this article is strictly prohibited.

About “Countryside Stays“

If you’re looking for a new way to experience Japan, sign up for a farm-stay experience through the Countryside Stays Japan program and participate in traditional rural-lifestyle activities in recommended countryside locations.

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